He created one of the most popular toys on the planet — but the inventor of the “Super Soaker” isn’t done making a splash.
Lonnie Johnson is now focusing on new battery technology, but his most rewarding pursuit may be sharing his knowledge with a new generation of engineers.
The mild-mannered Johnson grew up in Mobile, Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement.
"There was a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress," he remembered. "When I was a child the 'White-only’ bathrooms were still very prevalent."
He turned that fear into motivation — and a career as a NASA rocket scientist. But his "a-ha" moment came unexpectedly while he was designing a water pump. He had built testing the pump out in a bathroom when he noticed something.
“I thought to myself, ‘Geez, this would make a neat water gun!’” he said. “At that point I decided to put my engineering hat on and design a high performance water gun.”
That idea would change his life.
He built the first prototype for what became “The Super Soaker.”
The toy, which first went on sale in the early 1990's, eventually topped $1 billion in sales. Johnson also went on to come up with the NERF gun and other toys.
“It's interesting that the Super Soaker gets so much attention,” he said. “I really like to think of myself as a serious engineer!”
Now, he’s getting serious about giving back. His nonprofit helps fund high school robotics teams. One of them — the DISCbots from the nearby DeKalb International Student Center — is made up of refugees from nine countries.
Kalombo Mukuca fled the Central African Republic a year ago. "Even babies -- they kill them,” he said. “So we don't want to get killed."
Emanuel Tezera came to the United States from Ethiopia. “I want to fix something in this world,” he said.
Incredibly, in just its second year, the DISCbots qualified for the world-wide robotics competition in Texas.
For Johnson, this idea may be his most rewarding.
“If I can have a positive impact,” he said, “clearly it's something I want to do.”